The city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, located in the Joval valley of the Chiapas highlands, was named after Bartolomé de Las Casas, a former conquistador who experienced a religious conversion and entered the Dominican order in 1510. Formerly an encomendero himself, Las Casas renounced his encomiendas (rights to the labor or tribute of Indians; basically villages or towns with what the Spanish could do as they liked) after witnessing the savagely brutal treatment of the indigenous Americans at the hands of their Spanish overseers. (A startling book to read on this subject is American Holocaust, which is a catalog of the murder, mutilation, rape, and near-extinction of Native Americans at the hands of the European invader.) Las Casas wrote the polemic A Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies and persuaded King Carlos I to enact the New Laws of 1542, which protected, in the theory, Indians from the very worst excesses of the encomienda system. In 1545, Las Casas was appointed the first bishop of the state of Chiapas. The original liberation theologian, Las Casas was a tireless advocate for indigenous Americans throughout the rest of his life, eventually even arguing for restitution for the wealth that Spain had plundered and suggesting that the lands be returned to the native peoples. (Engraving to right is of Spanish invader Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519) in Central America executing Indians with mastiffs, by Théodore De Bry (1528-1598))
How fitting, then, that on Jan. 1, 1994—the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect—the forces of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, named after the Mexican Revolution hero Emiliano Zapata) seized control of San Crisóbal and demanded that the government hear their grievances. Led by the masked Subcomandante Marcos, the EZLN issued the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle before abandoning the city and disappearing into the Chiapas jungle. (The First Declaration was essentially a declaration of war on the Mexican government, which the EZLN considered illegitimate; after being routed from the city on Jan. 12, 2004, the EZLN underwent a transformation into a pacifist revolutionary group. Now on its Sixth Declaration, issued in 2005, the EZLN is more of a social justice group, at home and abroad.)
The EZLN—which is largely composed of indigenous people from Chiapas (notwithstanding Subcomandante Marcos, a former university professor originally from the state of Tamaulipas) who live in poverty and face discrimination and evictions from the racist wealthy landowners in the state—have set up several autonomous communities in the Chiapas highlands and jungles. Entrance to the villages is strictly limited; the Mexican police and army are not permitted to enter. Juntas with rotating memberships govern the villages, ensuring that everyone in the community has a chance to serve and corruption is minimized.
An hour and a half out of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the small village of Oventik lies nestled in Los Altos, the Chiapas highlands. It’s reached by combi, a small van that departs from the north of San Cristóbal’s main plaza, in a neighborhood where few non-Mexican faces are seen. The combi station is really nothing more than a corrugated-steel roof attached to a concrete wall, surrounded by sidewalk venders hawking household goods, clothes, tools, and pirated CDs, taco and tamale stalls, and elote (boiled large-kernel corn, topped with mayo, salsa, and cheese) pushcarts that fill the air with the fragrance of burning charcoal and maize.
Once the combi fills up, the drive takes you through a verdant series of undulating mountains and valleys, around hairpin turns where you can catch glimpses of goats grazing, Indian women washing laundry at the side of the road, and spring crops pushing their way up through the soil on the terraced hillsides. An occasional plume of smoke wafts across the road from a controlled burn on the hillside, to clear it of trees for future planting.
Finally, the combi stops on the side of the highway overlooking a valley at the entrance to the village. Oventik is Zapatista-controlled, which means that its main road has a steel gate blocking it, with a watchman standing guard, face covered by a bandana. Visitors must present their passports to him, which he carries to a small shack next to the road. After waiting for 10 minutes in the hot sun, while the reception committee is presumably deciding whether to allow any more people in that day, the guard returns and waves the visitors through the gate and into the shack. Inside, two balaclava-clad men—one young, who does most of the talking, and one old—sit at a desk where the visitors’ passports are stacked. The younger man gives a curt buenas tardes and produces a questionnaire that asks for the visitors’ nationalities, what their jobs are, the reasons for visiting the town, the length of stay, what organizations they are affiliated with, and if they have been in Oventik before. Passports are then returned to the owners, who are then directed to the village’s governing junta, across the road in another wooden shack painted with colorful murals.
Inside this building, the junta de buen gobierno (good-government council) sits at a long table—two women and four men, all wearing balaclavas with only their eyes showing. An old man sits in the middle, and the atmosphere is chilly. Once again, questions are asked about the reasons for visiting the village. The junta speaks Spanish to the visitors, but they interject the interview with asides to each other in their native Tzotile dialect, which has a sharp character to the way it sounds, along with a peculiarity that has the intonation of chewing. Visitors are sent outside to wait on a bench and, presumably because of the poor Spanish attempted by some during the interview process, laughter is heard resonating from inside while the junta debates the visitors’ fate. Finally, a member of the junta—a small woman with a fierce glare in traditional Tzotile garb (a white blouse with red-embroidered shoulders and chest, a dark voluminous skirt with an embroidered sash)—bids the visitors to enter once again. After they sit down, the old man in the middle informs the visitors that they are granted access to the town for the fiesta that is happening that day (who knew?), and that it is strictly forbidden to take any pictures of anyone wearing a balaclava. After agreeing to the rule, the visitors are dismissed.
The village has only one road, which is paved when it first braches out from the highway, but turns to rock and gravel after several hundred feet. Lining both sides are the aforementioned junta and reception shacks, both painted in brilliant colors with Zapatista-themed murals. There is a café/corner store, a couple of textile shops, and a well-constructed adobe-walled clinic. Behind this tiny commercial district are the living quarters for the villagers, nothing more than simple hovels made from planks and corrugated steel. The village is on a hillside of a small valley, in the center of which is a large plaza and open-air basketball court. The fiesta is a staid affair: A band plays Mexican ballads in the shade, and a basketball tournament takes place in front (the participants include a girls’ team, most of whom are dressed in the Tzotile style, which in no way handicaps their surprising good athleticism). Villagers stake out spots in the shade, or hang back in the tree line at the edge of the clearing to escape the heat of the afternoon sun. A sprinkling of venders sell fried plátanos, churros, and soda. Off to the side of the plaza sits the new secondary school, which also has murals depicting the Zapatistas, their symbols, and their progenitor. (The spaceship EZLN, pictured above, filled with masked Zapatistas while a campesino strides the earth (notice the peeled ear of corn to the left, with each kernal containing a masked Zapatista); villagers find shade in picture to the right; the new secondary school, below.)
Unlike San Cristóbal, the women and children do not mob tourists and try to sell them everything under the sun (whether that be traditional weaving and textiles or horrific mass-produced trinkets that are as likely to originate in China as in Mexico). Instead, there seems to be a quiet dignity to the people here. There is wrenching poverty, to be sure, but it seems that with the autonomy of the village comes an autonomy of their lives. Instead of begging for change, as the children do in San Cristóbal, the children here smile at the tourists, or just look away. The women sit in the shade and laugh at the tall, white gringo; instead of demanding money when asked for their photo to be taken, they giggle and firmly decline. (Picture to the right was taken on the sly.)
The men are much less shy, and they wear modern, western-influenced clothing: cowboy boots, an occasional hat, jeans, and gaudy belts. They nod when nodded to, and some even allow their pictures to be taken against the backdrop of a mural. (Notice the corn motif in this and other murals; maize is a venerated plant throughout Mexico.)
There’s not much to do in Oventik besides laze around, watch the basketball tournament, eat fried plátanos and look at the murals. Toward the end of the afternoon, one can stop by the café and order a platter of huevos a la Mexicana (eggs with tomatoes, chiles, and onions—red, green, and white, the colors of the Mexican flag), buy a T-shirt with a Zapatista slogan emblazoned on it, and nod goodbye to the young man sitting outside the reception shack—now not wearing his balaclava and no longer anonymous to the world (perhaps now you can be trusted, now that you’ve spent the day in town?). Then you step outside the steel gate—back in Mexican-controlled territory again—and sit at the side of the highway with a friendly gray Zapata-dog to wait for the combi to pick you up, and the winding, vertiginous ride back to San Cristóbal de Las Casas.